Should you learn Mandarin despite China’s zero covid policy?

There’s a huge overlap between politics, culture, and language. And even though I’d like to focus on the latter, China’s future will also affect many potential Mandarin learners — especially those not in China now, but looking to study or work in China in the future.

Regardless of whether you agree with zero covid or not (the WHO doesn’t), April 2022 saw an increase of shipment delays, and severe damage to the Chinese economy, and no exit plan seems in place. China remains committed to zero covid despite it costing GDP. Foreign investors are fleeing.

Myself, I’m writing this on day 53 of the Shanghai lockdown. For me, China’s zero covid strategy has meant not seeing my family in over three years, and when I inevitably travel back to the Netherlands it’ll mean insanely high ticket prices and over two weeks of quarantine back in China, on top of the uncertainty whether I can actually make it back.

I moved to Shanghai in 2018 and have put in almost 600 class hours with GoEast Mandarin. Moving to China has been the experience of a lifetime, and being able to speak Mandarin beyond an intermediate level has been a huge source of happiness and confidence in my life. But if I would be standing at that starting point now, I wouldn’t be able to get into China and thus my life would for sure take another road, along a different language.

It’s not just me. Expat in China in the past two years were already very few in numbers, and more will be leaving, I live in Shanghai’s Yangpu district and before 2020, Fudan, Tongji, and Caijing University had tens of thousands of foreign students, whereas in the last two years it has been practically zero, with barely any new visas being handed out.

This is not about whether you agree with zero covid or not. And I know that Chinese is spoken in so many places outside of (mainland) China. But at the same time, it’s also true that many people learn the Chinese language to use it in China — be it for tourism or business. And with people and money having a harder time entering or leaving China, I do think it’s a real question many people will have.

In many cases, Mandarin means China. People all across the world learn English because it allows them to do business with people abroad, for instance, someone in Brazil can do business with someone in Poland through English. But this is less true for Mandarin. In terms of second-language speakers, Mandarin Chinese isn’t as big as English, Arabic, or Hindi, and is about as big as French.

But let’s go over a lot of “this-and-that’s” to help you answer this question for yourself.

Why do you learn Mandarin?

Just keep in mind that “learning Mandarin” can mean several things. To speak Chinese at an elementary level is, despite being hard, relatively straightforward and can be achieved in a few months or at least a year. It’s perfect for survival, tourism, or making friends. But if you want to read novels or fully work in a Chinese language environment, that’s a project of years. Then there’s everything in the middle with corresponding efforts required and rewards.

There was a podcast on six types of Mandarin learners by John Pasden and Jared Turner earlier this month. Their key finding was that learner motivation was the key differentiator between learners, more strongly than gender, age, country of residence, country of origin, employment, education level, language levels, etcetera.

  • Language enthusiasts learn Chinese out of intellectual curiosity or enjoyment of learning
  • Cultural connectors want to connect with China in a way that requires Mandarin
  • Aspirational learners see Mandarin as part of the life they aspire to have
  • Functional learners learn Mandarin to survive (mostly expats in China)
  • Career focussed consists of people who think that by learning Chinese they’ll have more career opportunities in the future
  • Obligated learners are obliged by school or family expectations (for instance heritage Chinese)

It’s worth noting that while many people start learning Mandarin as language enthusiasts, nobody goes beyond an intermediate level on enthusiasm alone. People’s learning motivation changes.

For many other groups, we can see the problem. You could learn Mandarin because you want to study in China, but what’s the timeline you’re giving yourself for getting a study visa and actually being able to enter China? The same for a career. Apple already told its suppliers that it wants to expand manufacturing outside of China, because of its zero covid policy — and Airbnb is leaving too.

You could learn Mandarin because you love to connect with Chinese people, but does that love hold strong if you cannot travel to China for tourism purposes? It also works the other way around. For instance, many Thai people have learned Mandarin to cater to Chinese tourists, but those tourists aren’t coming because visas are hard to get, plus travel requires a two-week quarantine. Chinese tourists not spending $280 billion on traveling abroad must surely have an impact on this. (Anecdotally, there are barely any Chinese artists at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.)

We can point out functional learners, which are mostly expats in China — a group whose number is already dwindling.

The only large groups I can think of that remain largely unfazed by the zero covid policy are people with a Chinese heritage, or historians who want or need to read Chinese texts. Some people learn Mandarin to consume Chinese movies and series, but this group is probably not as big as fans of Korean media.

Was interest in Chinese already declining?

Before covid, several people already noted the decline in enrollments in Chinese language studies. Pinyin News notes that all language studies except English saw their numbers drop, but Mandarin more than the average. Language Magazine wrote in 2021 that Chinese language programs at universities have been falling since 2013 — not just in the U.S, but also in the UK and Australia — although it does mention that there’s a growth in Chinese language programs for young learners.

Google Trends shows that interest in learning Mandarin has been very low the last two years, compared to Japanese & Korean. But it doesn’t really answer the above question.

Should you learn Mandarin despite China's zero covid policy?


Why learning Mandarin is still worth it

Beyond personal reasons or decisions to learn Mandarin for its own enjoyment — the language isn’t suddenly becoming irrelevant, even if it becomes slightly more difficult to get the fruits of hard study from it. And Mandarin is also spoken outside of mainland China, most notably in regions like Singapore, Malaysia, and Taiwan — which are easier to get into than mainland China. We already see international Mandarin language schools moving to those regions to offer summer camps, because mainland China isn’t accessible — and perhaps more industries will follow suit. But not just that, there are Chinese communities around the world. Even in my Dutch hometown of 10,000 people I was able to speak Chinese.

But most importantly, a career in China may still work depending on your timeline. China will open up, eventually. It’s unlikely to do so before 2024, but even if you put the timeline to 2026, that still gives you four years. The zero covid policy is driven by a lot of things, but not out of hate for foreigners. So if you spend four years learning Mandarin, you may be in a really great position to move to China once it opens up. China will be needing foreign talent and if you can speak Mandarin your life will be much easier here. Also, fewer Chinese students are choosing to study abroad and this may hurt overall English language performance — on top of tutor crackdowns for primary schools. It’s just a matter of whether you can keep up learning motivation if you cannot enter China, and whether you can create an immersive environment for yourself despite not learning in China. But if fewer people choose to learn Mandarin, that may actually work in your favor.